The Topography of Tears: Do Tears of Joy and Sorrow Look Different Under the Microscope?

Tears of ending and beginning

Do tears of grief look different under the microscope than tears of happiness?

That's the basis of photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher's new project, The Topography of Tears. Over the past several years, she collected human tears - her own and others - that accompany a wide range of feelings, including elation, sorrow, frustration, and rejection. (She's even got tears from chopping onions and those of a newborn.)

"I started the project about five years ago, during a period of copious tear, amid lots of change and loss - so I had a surplus of raw material," Fisher said to Joseph Stromberg of The Smithsonian's Collage of Arts and Sciences blog. After realizing that "everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg," visually speaking, she wondered what a tear looked like up close.

So Fisher caught one of her tears, dried it on a slide and peered through the microscope's eyepiece. "It was really interesting. It looked like an aerial view, almost as if I was looking down at a landscape from a plane. Eventually, I started wondering - would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?"

Onion tears

Stromberg explained that scientifically speaking, there are three types of tears: basal tears that are released continuously in small quantities to keep the eye lubricated, reflex tears that are secreted when the eye is irritated by foreign particles like sand or onion vapors, and psychic tears from crying or weeping due to strong emotions, both positive and negative.

All tears are mainly composed of water and salts, with accompanying biological substances like antibodies and antibacterial enzymes. And according to studies, the composition of emotional or psychic tears are different than those caused by eye irritants. For example, emotional tears have more protein-based hormones.

Some of that may explain the differences in Fisher's photos of the various tears, but as any chemist would tell you, the crystallization of salt is highly dependent on a variety of factors. So keep in mind that the same emotional tears may crystallize into vastly different shapes and formations under slightly different circumstances. Regardless, that does not diminish our joy in viewing Fisher's remarkable micrographs.

View the photo essay over at The Smithsonian.

Tears of change

Tears of timeless reunion

Tears of grief

Basal tears

Laughing tears

All photos: Rose-Lynn Fisher

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Wow! This is an amazing article & the pictures are fantastic!!! Just beautiful.

I wonder if Fisher could inspect The Tears Of a Clown next? Would they have smiley crystals hidden in the picture? ha
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